Goodbye to the Iran nuclear bomb?

By Jonathan Power

Is it agreement time in Iran? Is Iran going to bend to the will of the UN Security Council and engineer a compromise that will allow it to enrich uranium – but only to a small degree – in return for allowing the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency to intimately monitor its nuclear industry to assure it doesn’t enrich further to enable it to build a nuclear weapon?

The West and Israel in particular have long been in a panic about a possible Iranian nuclear bomb. There is a strong “bomb Iran before it is too late” faction in the US Republican Party and even more so in Israel. This has never made sense if one reads the tea-leaves carefully.

Conveniently lost in the mists of history is the fact that Iran’s nuclear bomb research was begun by the pro-American Shah of Iran. It has taken all this time – over 35 years – to get as far as what it is capable of now – enriching uranium to 20%, a rather low level. Why should a bomb be round the corner?

Dictatorial regimes find it exceedingly hard to build a bomb, as Jacques Hymans points out in an interesting essay published in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Of course the Soviet Union and China succeeded but this was because they gave their nuclear scientists autonomy.

But most dictator-led, would-be bomb states don’t. The political leaders interfere constantly which results in long delays in the creative process. Take Iraq. In the years leading up to Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osiraq reactor Saddam Hussein periodically ravaged the bomb project, dismissing and jailing both officials and scientists. Only after the strike did Saddam release the country’s head of the nuclear programme.

Another calamity followed in the mid-1980s when Saddam’s son-in-law who had been put in charge of the project started to impose unrealistic deadlines causing both machines and personnel to crack under the pressure. He pitted scientists against one another in brutal competition. He demanded dramatic technical changes rendering prior work meaningless. Thus even after an expenditure of $1 billion over 10 years by the time of the first Gulf War Iraq had not produced any weapons’ grade enriched uranium.

Libya, under Muammar Gadaffi, was unable to put all the pieces together despite buying an off-the-shelf bomb from Pakistan’s rogue nuclear bomb-baker, A.Q. Khan.

It is the same story with North Korea. US intelligence agencies thought that by the 1990s the North Koreans had built one or two nuclear weapons. But not until 2006 did North Korea conduct a test and that just fizzled. Its second try three years later did not work properly either. Last month it launched a rocket that was supposed to carry a nuclear weapon. It exploded as had an earlier one. Again the scientists had been whipped into impossible deadlines by a political leadership that was out of touch with what, often demoralised, scientists could do. In all likelihood many went home after a day’s work throwing their hands up in despair.

In Iran there is plenty of evidence that the Iranian regime has shown a marked preference for political loyalty over professional qualifications. This is one important reason that US and Israeli estimates have constantly overestimated the pace of development of the bomb.

In the 1990s it was said the bomb would be ready by 2000. Then it was bumped up to 2005. Then to 2010 and, most recently, 2015 (but with the Israeli leadership warning, as they long have, it could be within a year or two). Both the US and Israel extrapolate from minimal data without much attention to what the great novelist Graham Greene would call “the human factor”. (I should add that five years ago a major CIA report concluded that Iran was nowhere near building bomb and cast doubt on whether that was Iran’s intention. Some senior retired figures in the US military who have inside knowledge say that is true now.)

All this suggests that in its negotiations with Iran the US has no need to raise the military stick, fearing Republican propaganda that argues that it must be used today.

The US can afford to offer carrots, to be conciliatory and strike a real bargain. The one that appears to be being suggested is to agree to Iran enriching uranium up to 20% which is enough to fuel its domestic power network – just as the US accepts Brazil doing this. The US must also resurrect the idea that the Iranian negotiators once agreed to – that Iran’s stock of enriched uranium be sent to another country such as Russia or Turkey where it could be safely stored to be released as needed.

The word out of Washington and Tehran suggests this is the way the negotiations are heading. At last.

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